This is the 400th post on my blog. Seriously, I had never thought I would make it till here. Long, long back there used to be a brown diary where I used to write terrible poems. Thankfully, it no longer exists (probably). Maybe someone had wrapped fruits or jhalmuri in some of the pages.
Maybe someone has preserved it, at least a single page.
I do not miss my diary anymore. Diaries cannot be preserved. You can get all sentimental about diaries and letters and dry flowers inside books, but, well, you cannot stack them up neatly in Google Drive. You cannot use F3 or Ctrl + F when you want to, badly.
But I digress, as usual. This is my 400th post. I wanted to make it stand out. I thought of all sorts of 400s — of Brian Lara, of the fact that it is the square of 20, of HTTP status code 400.
I also realised that it reads CD in Roman, which meant I could write on compact disks (no, not on compact disks, for they are too small; I could write something on the topic).
Then I decided to write on my grandparents. There is no logic behind that, barring the fact that the number has four hundreds and there were four grandparents. Neither of my grandparents lived till a hundred, so writing about them in a 400-themed post makes no sense.
But then, blog-posts need not make sense; not always.
More importantly, someone has to chronicle about these four remarkable people.
My grandparents were seriously interesting and diverse — all of them — way more than my parents or brother or I have been or are (am) or will be.
Let me start with Guru Prasanna Roy Chowdhury, my maternal grandfather, a man whose roots lay in Faridpur, Bangladesh, but he loved Kolkata so much that he did not take up a promotion (he worked at DVC) because it would have meant leaving the city.
I had no clue why he cared so much for me, for I was not the quintessential lively kid. I read, and I read a lot. When I was at his place, and both of us were in the same room, hours passed by as I read on and he played solitaire, the Phillips transistor radio on, tuned in to irrelevant programmes.
In other words, he rarely communicated with me when I was busy. He respected my space.
And yet, when he took me out for a walk, he was full of conversations, of Kolkata of the 1940s and 1950s, of my mother’s childhood, of how Durga Puja has evolved, of Congress and CPM, of Gavaskar and Kapil Dev.
He was always the same. He would wear a white punjabi and dhuti; there would be a walking-stick in his right hand; my right wrist would be clutched very tight; and there would be long, very long, tireless walks that always seemed to get over too soon, for he never ran out of insights and information and trivia.
Those evening walks taught me more of Kolkata and her history than books.
In the monsoon months he took me to Potopara, a locality where they make idols of Durga. I could not understand why he, an atheist to the core, used to do this. I kept asking him, but he never told me till I was about ten.
“You have seen what The Goddess actually is. I will not influence you, but make up your mind on God’s existence.”
I wish I could be a teacher half as good.
He never believed in exuberance. He did not speak a lot. But when he did, the words were profound, and made an impact.
My brother and I got admitted to Kyokushinkaikan karate. In late 1980s or early 1990s you always had to learn something. Karate had perhaps to do with the fact that my father loved watching movies on martial arts (just a guess).
It was exciting, especially those first few days. We visited his place after class, one day. He was reading a newspaper.
“We are learning karate.”
He nodded sadly, very sadly. He looked at me from behind his thick glasses and said, “Pipe-guns — they are everywhere these days. So many innocent people get killed every day. Can you help them?”
I got decent marks in my 10th. Everyone assumed I would take up science, barring this man. He called me, separately, and asked me to do what I wanted to. He would stand by me if it came to that.
“It does not matter what you study, or what you do. If you are good at it, and if your heart lies in it, the subject does not matter. You will never get these days back.”
Two years later he asked me the same question. I chose to study statistics, not engineering, after my 12th.
Two years later he was no more.
There are too many memories to share as my glasses are getting thick, almost thick as his. And yet, what stands out in memory is a retort aimed at my mother:
“Baba, tuck in your mosquito net properly. The malignant malaria-bearing mosquitoes operate only between two and three at night.”
“Yeah, right; they have watches.”
[হ, অগো হাতে ঘোরি আসে।]
We kept his last wishes: we donated his body to Calcutta Medical College; and there was no funeral.
Latika, his wife, was a curious, most singular character, one of the liveliest and most energetic I have seen. They stayed on the fourth floor, and well in her late eighties she would climb the staircase with ease, going to market, to ‘gas booking’ if there was an issue with LPG cylinders and the phone was not working, and more.
My father helped her with banking and other similar activities, but she was generally fiercely independent. At an age when most mothers are happy to stay at their daughters’ (she had two), she refused to do the same. Seldom did she stay happily at our place, or my aunt’s.
She had her idiosyncrasies. I remember an occasion when I was supposed to pick her up at 10. She called me at, about, 9.20, enquiring why I had still not arrived. When I pointed out that there was still forty-odd minutes left, she mentioned that she was ready by 8.30, walked downstairs, waited till 9, then 9.15, got irritated, and walked up all four storeys to call.
[I have double-checked the times while writing.]
She was powerfully (but harmlessly) patriotic, and used to salute a photograph of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on January 23 till well into her final years.
That was probably normal.
She had expected me (in my early twenties), my brother, and my cousin (both in their late teens) to stand in a queue and welcome the arrival third millennium.
That was probably not normal.
But it did not matter, for she did not give a, well, you-know-what to what the world thought of her.
She lived till I was thirty-five, which meant I saw a lot of her. By then I knew more about life than I ever thought I would, at thirty. And I marvelled at the resilience of the woman who went on about everything with a near-toothless smile.
This was the woman who introduced me to Ramayan, and generally, to mythology.
This was the woman who waited at the doorsteps, and applauded me all the way to the bedroom when I visited them the day after I passed my 10th.
Do you realise how embarrassing this was?
This was a woman who had seen, lived, and conquered poverty.
This was a woman who had seen her youngest daughter pass away; and overcame it.
This was a woman who used to panic when she saved fifty rupees at the end of the month (from her pension), wondering how she would spend all that money. This was fifty rupees in the 2000s, mind you.
This was a woman who could not be conquered by age or grief.
And today, as I approach forty, I wish she was here, to applaud me all the way at achievements as insignificant as passing an examination.
Sova Mukherjee was the ubiquitous grandmother (Achala Sachdev, not Zohra Sehgal). She was kind, she walked at the pace of about fifty metres an hour (okay, I exaggerated that), was blessed with a nice smile, and was extremely grandmotherly.
She mothered three children. Since both my parents were working, she almost ‘mothered’ my brother and me as well.
She ensured we were well-fed (or, in my case, a bit too well-fed).
She used to talk to tea (yes, you have read that right). She remains the only person I have seen who consumed two cups of tea simultaneously, one in each hand, sipping alternately, taking out time for words of praise: “Oh, tea — the person who discovered you must have been a genius! Can you tell me his name?”
She never understood a word of Hindi, but used to get extremely excited whenever the climax of a Bollywood movie approached on Doordarshan and the hero had managed to rescue the heroine and corner the villain: “Maar! Maar!”
And then, “The movie got over? Just like that?”
“What else were you expecting? The villain went to prison, the hero and heroine got together...”
“But there will be a wedding! They will ‘do shongshar’! What about that?”
She loved her shongshar. You can probably visualise her, in her black, broad-rimmed glasses, keys tied to her white, cotton aatpoure sari — keys that always announced her arrival.
She had little formal education and could barely write her name, and yet could tell whether there was an Enid Blyton inside my history book: “your expressions gave it away.”
My mother once told me a story about her. A didi (my neighbour and second cousin) was once walking outside the terrace of our neighbour’s, grabbing the perilously fragile-looking cornice. A hysteric yell would have been catastrophic. She kept her calm, whispered to my didi’s mother (my something, do not ask, it is very confusing), telling her everything and asking her not to panic.
And my grandmother masterminded the rescue in the matter of minutes, by having the right people in right places.
She was religious, and was extremely prejudiced when it came to religion. And yet, there was no real issue when my parents had an inter-caste love marriage.
More importantly, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, she went out of her way to accommodate a Sikh family in our house.
That was the second lesson in religion from a grandparent.
But, most importantly, she was the mother when my mother was away on her day job.
Her health deteriorated quickly after my grandfather passed away. She had slipped once, in her last days. I had picked her up and put her to bed. She seemed light, very light. I wondered how she had carried the entire household on her shoulders all those decades.
She was about to breathe her last when I was in Washington-Dulles on a seven-hour layover, for the British Airways flight had been delayed.
She breathed her last by the time I had landed in Heathrow. I never got to know till I landed in Kolkata.
All that waited for me was a photograph and incense sticks. My grandmother was somewhere else, they said, embalmed, waiting for me.
When I finally got to see her, she was not smiling anymore. Embalming had not helped.
This leaves me with Satya Charan Mukherjee, probably the coolest individual I have known in real life.
My dadu worked as a car salesman. He had a way with his words, which meant that he topped the charts every month in his organisation. This was not unexpected, for if his gift of the gab was even a fragment of what it was in his late eighties, he must have been phenomenal.
But then, he would not leave Kolkata, which was hardly unusual in our family.
What was more, he would not compromise with his siesta. This meant that he left for office in the morning, came back at one, had his lunch followed by his afternoon sleep, and never returned for the day.
And yet, he topped the charts, month after month.
His boss obviously told him one day that he could not leave office that early every day.
My grandfather showed him the sales charts.
His boss mentioned that the company had decorum to maintain.
So my grandfather resigned, went to a rival organisation, and announced that he was available. He was hired instantly.
Note: This is a verified story.
My grandfather used to participate in car-rallies and win awards, and made his way to newspapers.
For a long time the hat, the whistle, and the baton remained a mystery, but I got to know that he was a part of the police special force.
I cannot sell a car, drive, or fight crime to save my life, which are among the many reasons why I thought he was cool.
He had once caught a fraud astrologer red-handed, and, well, did not let him get away with it.
He watched cricket with my mother. The two of them gave me cricket.
He made sure I had a library membership at a very young age.
He cooked mutton the way few chefs can.
He kept odd hours, going to bed at eight at night and waking up at half-past three. He was back from his morning-walk by five. When the clock ticked over to 7.45 at night, he made sure the bedroom was cleared.
He made sure my aunt became a Company Secretary when married teenage girls seldom pursued studies, let alone a professional course. This, despite taking immense pride in announcing that he was a “matriculate by chance”.
He was the first guardian to reach my school to collect his ward the day Mrs Gandhi was assassinated.
He made sure I accompanied him to market. By six I could tell fresh, soft ladies’-fingers from their stubborn components, or how to identify a desi potol.
I got my first job a year before he passed away. I had a choice between a handsome package in Hyderabad and a moderate one in Kolkata. I told him.
“Who leaves Kolkata for money?”
I did, eventually. Not for money, but for a job, for they do not have many back there anymore.
They were cool and jovial, perseverant and bizarre, smiling and radical, compassionate and protective. They knew the thin line between encouraging and spoiling, all four of them.
When I was young I was tired of everyone telling me how fortunate I was to have all four of them, not only alive, but healthy. It took me years to understand why.
As my thirties come to a close, memories swarm my mind. I do not have photographs of them with me, or at least, hard copies.
But meeting them is never far away. I am blessed with an above-average memory, you see.